The Cell

January 3, 2007

You can get yourself into a lot of trouble with cell phones… Cell phones, dangerous little devices… Paul “Bono” Hewson, U2 – Vertigo 2005 – Live From Chicago

While enjoying a cup of coffee this morning, I watched Jeanne Moos’ recent segment about 2006 being the “year of the cell phone.” (At least for now, you can find it on the list of CNN videos.) However, Mobilewack made the same proclamation for 2005, while Harvard Magazine said so as far back as 1999.

Considering how cell phone capabilities have evolved over the past few years, as well as some of the news stories involving such capabilities, I think Moos’ proclamation is the most accurate. However, the novelty of capturing racist tirades in comedy clubs, taserings of students in academic libraries, presumably stoned professors flipping off students, and morally dubious executions of deposed dictators, has worn off. The proliferation of such stories indicates that cell phone “films” have become just another aspect of our everyday lives… although they can capture extraordinary events that can move people to action. Of course, one could have said the same thing 15 years ago about video cameras, as the Rodney King beating made very clear. On the other hand, the technology has become more portable, and the means of making such footage available to the public does not require going through major news outlets.

The execution of Saddam Hussein last week demonstrates the power of footage taken on cell phones. I figured that someone probably would unleash Hussein’s moment of death eventually, but I had no idea that someone armed with a cell phone would be the culprit. As CNN reports, the video has the potential to exacerbate sectarian tensions within Iraq. However, Hussein’s execution is not the only cell phone footage from Iraq available for public consumption. With the Hussein execution as an opening point, BBC reports on the impact of moving and still cell phone pictures from Iraq.

As I explore Technorati at 12:00 (3.1.07), three of the top five searches are for “Saddam Execution Video,” “Saddam,” and “Saddam Execution.” The other two “top five” searches are for “Britney” and something called “Studivz.” Excluding “studivz,” the juxtaposition of Thanatos with a marginal nod to Eros demonstrates that our curiosity about such topics remains the same, even as the technology to access their manifestations continues to change rapidly.

As Bono implies in the video from the 2005 Vertigo Tour concert, cell phones can cause trouble for a number of reasons. (Just ask the security guard who filmed Hussein’s execution.) In Bono’s case, he uses “trouble” as a euphemism for making changes to improve the lot of humanity. Viewers can see surreptitiously-filmed footage that exposes abuses of power, and they may feel moved to work for change. On the other hand, one could argue that those who use cell phones to take moving and still pictures may be abusing power themselves.

As humans, we do not always act our best. That is why some people with malicious motives indulge in blackmail; they catch someone else acting badly, and they believe that they have a right to act poorly themselves. However, some simply bypass the blackmail part, deciding that they can get what they want by posting footage of someone else’s bad behavior. (They can at least get attention, and maybe a few dollars.) It might be little more than someone losing inhibitions and (subsequently) a few garments at a party, which doesn’t seem quite as bad as ethnic cleansing and executing political opponents. Nevertheless, a small fragment of film can ruin the life of someone who simply made a bad choice, even if their actions do not impair their ability to be good citizens and hard workers. Unless a serious crime is being committed, most private matters do not merit the kind of tut-tutting and tongue-wagging that various media can make even more turgid.

Considering the positive and negative impact of cell phone footage, one has to wonder why the security guard recorded Hussein’s hanging. Did he wish to inflame sectarian violence in Iraq? Did he want to achieve fame? Did he simply want to document an event? Did he have several overlapping motives? Whatever the reason(s), the CNN story notes that he intended to make the footage public.

Perhaps we never will find out the security guard’s rationale for filming Hussein’s execution. On the other hand, maybe someone brought their own cell phone to the guard’s interrogation…

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